TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Theory and Immunity

The primary defense your body has to ensure your health is a well-functioning immune system. Ailments and diseases as the common cold, infections, asthma, food allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer are all interrelated to immune system dysfunction or Immune-deficiency. This is a condition in which the immune system is suppressed which makes you vulnerable to disease and infection.

Traditional Chinese medicine textbooks clearly state that practitioners have been treating immune system disorders for thousands of years.

  • the documentary records for the Chinese word "immune" was first seen in the 18th century in the book Mian Yi Lei Fang (Formulas for the Immunity from Plague
  • In chapter 72 of the Suwen (The Book of Plain Questions), when the Yellow Emperor asked about the seasonal epidemic diseases, his chief advisor Qi Bo answered that in order to defend against those diseases, one should always keep his healthy energy abundant, and the evils will not invade.

The symptoms that are described are those of immune deficiency, allergic reactions, or auto-immune disease. Effective treatments included natural herb mixtures, dietary therapy, acupuncture, and Tai Chi. These treatments are especially effective because they focus on strengthening the immune system and stimulating the body’s natural defense mechanisms. 

TCM’s Holistic Approach to Immunology

TCM sees the human body as an organic whole. The correlations are between the organs and tissues emphasis to mutual balance between each physiological function. The human being and the living environment are organized according to specific orders. This integral stability and harmony is the center of disease defense and health maintenance. Any disturbances in this equilibrium will cause disease. Every part of the body such as Qi (vital energy), blood, body fluids, organs and the meridians have their own particular function. Yet they combine to bolster the body's defense system and bring out their protective strength mutually. The concept is the body's natural resistance against diseases and its repair ability are described as a flow of energy that circulates throughout the body, which is called the healthy energy (zheng Qi). 

Healthy Energy’s (zheng Qi) Role in the Human Body's Immune Functions

When the immune system functions normally, health can be maintained; otherwise disharmony will occur and give rise to illness.

Similar to Western medicine, TCM also holds that the body has its own disease defense ability due to the existence of healthy energy (zheng Qi). In chapter 72 of Suwen (The Book of Plain Questions), it states: "When healthy energy is well stored inside the body, no evils can cause interference." In chapter 33 it states: "Whenever the evils are gathered inside, a deficiency of healthy energy must be present." These statements imply that healthy energy is the body's natural resistance against disease, and disease is seen as the result of the disharmonious healthy energy within us. Occasionally, other TCM terms such as primordial Qi, genuine Qi or protective Qi also refer to this kind of resistance. All of these embody the body's comprehensive immune functioning. 

Immune Modulation Effects are Integral to Proper Immune Functioning

When healthy energy (zheng Qi) is readily available, the “evils” cannot prevail. TCM believes the body's Yin/Yang is regulated and adjusted continuously. Keeping Yin/Yang in balance is essential to carry on normal life activities. If this equilibrium is disturbed, disease can result.

Restoring Yin/Yang harmony is the universal treatment goal of TCM. The overall therapeutic strategy is to replenish deficiencies and remove excesses of Yin or Yang. The methodologies are usually focused on holistic regulation and possession of dual modulation effects. The goal is to remove excesses and replenish deficiencies. These characteristics are similar to Western medicine's understanding of our body's immune modulation effects. The dual modulation (or immune modulation) effects of TCM have the following characteristics.

  • TCM focuses on mobilizing our own innate healing power; most of its remedies work on the whole being, not just on specific systems.
  • Their healing power is far beyond the physical level because they also work on the level of Qi (vital energy) that fuels us. Even when the body seems healthy and there are no outward symptoms, immune function can be affected with symptoms present internally. Herbal remedies can find and fix these imbalances even when they are not obvious to us.
  • TCM uses different modulation methods. For example, we adjust the body's Yin and Yang, Qi (vital energy) or blood or organ functions to support the balancing process. Treatments can rehabilitate the body to go from a hyper-functioning state to a normal state or from an under-functioning level back to a normal state. TCM’s unique theories categorize the regulating properties into four actions:
    • "depress when stimulated"
    • "rise when collapsed"
    • "subdue when overwhelming"
    • "nourish when deficient."

In some ways a dual purpose is achieved, normal immune functions are enhanced and the internal pathogenic factors are eliminated with dual modulation effects. A complementary relationship is formed that reinforces healthy energy and repels evils.